Abel & Cole's sustainability boss has led the introduction of eco labels at the business

Seeds of Change interview: Abel & Cole sustainability boss on eco labels and supply chain transparency

A series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives, and much more.

Stefanie Sahmel, head of sustainability at organic food subscription company Abel & Cole, is providing one of the green-focused presentations at this year’s Retail Technology Show.

In her morning keynote, Sahmel will tackle the not insignificant topic of what a sustainable supply chain actually looks like and how it can help retailers manage supply chain risk.

Visitors to the session, which takes place on Thursday 27 April, the second day of the two-day event, will also be able to hear about ways to collaborate on supply chain sustainability and how technology innovation can boost supply chain transparency.

Abel & Cole, which delivers regular fresh groceries to subscribers across the UK, is a stand-out company in terms of greener retailing, and Sahmel has multiple examples of good practice to share.

Ahead of the event, which will run at London’s Olympia venue, Green Retail World caught up with the sustainability boss to gather a picture of the Abel & Cole sustainability leader’s impressive vision.

Transparency, efficiency, and insights

Building a sustainable supply chain starts with transparency, according to Sahmel.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure – so the first thing is you have to have the insight into your supply chain.”

Abel & Cole is one of the pioneering companies in the use of eco labels displayed on its website, highlighting the aggregate carbon, water pollution, water usage, and biodiversity score on the products it sells. The retailer works with data-driven insights platform Mondra to crunch the numbers while Foundation Earth assigns the label.

Many companies starting the eco labelling process – because there is no standard in this space yet – rely on consultancies working with global carbon footprint averages for individual products. But Abel & Cole deemed it necessary to do more of the legwork itself – to be proactive.

“Our suppliers are often family-owned businesses, quite artisanal, and take a lot of pride in how they go about what they do – they are particularly innovative,” Sahmel remarks.

“All the fruit and veg we sell is organic. The global average is not a true reflection of what we actually sell. For us it was important to get to the primary data as opposed to the proxy data. And understanding what our suppliers are actually doing.”

She describes the eco impact label as the final output of all the supply chain management and research that goes beforehand. Everyone wants a good grade but the additional benefits from a sustainability perspective come in the form of the continued progress that a proactive approach leads to, she adds.

“We appreciate the real value of the work lies in the journey and understanding where perhaps could the supplier still improve,” Sahmel says.

“Is there a point in time, for example, where all our suppliers need to be operating on renewable energy or is there a point in time when we say all incoming goods need to be transported with low carbon methods?”

She adds: “The insights we gain out of the work we’ve done allows us to take action. Without those insights how do you know where to start?

Eco label standardisation?

The Skidmore Review, a report published earlier this year based on a government-triggered consultation into Net Zero strategy for business and society, recommends that as many products as possible are given an eco-label by 2025.

Sahmel doesn’t see why this cannot be achieved but agrees that with no standards yet in place the system is ripe for manipulation.

“The problem of course is everyone needs to sing to the same tune which means you need a standard.

“I always think we’re where nutritional labelling was in the late 1980s – except, hopefully, it’ll move a lot faster to becoming mandatory. It’s a race to get there first and whoever has a credible methodology behind them for a standard.”

The sustainability boss acknowledges that it is a complex situation, further complicated because the European Union is moving in one direction and the UK needs to decide if it follows or not now that it does not have to after Brexit.

Until there is a standard, everyone is going to find a way to make their product look good and “they will cherry pick perhaps when it comes to the boundary setting for these scopes”, Sahmel adds.

Summarising the whole greener thinking movement in the wider business world and the need for organisations to back up what they say with relevant action, Sahmel states: “I heard someone say principles are not principles until they cost you money.

“A business can have all kinds of principles but unless they back them up with money – if that’s what it requires – then it really is not a principle.”

Which horse to back?

A lot of the time in sustainability it emerges that a course of action previously deemed ‘green’ is not as good for the environment as it was first perceived to be. It’s a real issue, according to Sahmel.

It has led Abel & Cole to change its stance on compostable plastics in recent months.

“For a few years they were touted as Holy Grail – research suggests it doesn’t always do what it says it’s doing. We have moved away from compostable plastics and we now collect plastic packaging from customers and ensure it is recycled by specialist recyclers in the UK.”

Meanwhile, the company is looking at different options for the reusability of milk packaging, which builds on the ‘Club Zero’ range it launched in 2020 which now covers approximately 70 SKUs. Club Zero covers items like raisins, rice and other dry ambient products, which now arrive in refillable primary packaging. Customers can decant the items into their own jars and leave the packaging on their doorstep for collection and subsequent reuse by Abel & Cole.

Sahmel says there is a key performance indicator scorecard for sustainability at Abel & Cole which is presented to the board each month. The business sets targets at the beginning of the financial year and the sustainability team track progress and update the board month by month.

Abel & Cole’s partner in its greener retailling work include Coveris for the packaging recycling – a process that involves pelletising the plastic before it is turned into material for groundsheets in the building industry.

“We work with Green Element [a consultancy], too, another B Corp. We tend to work with B Corps when we can as we find we share a similar mentality.”

Elephant in the room

Overconsumption is a recognised contributor to greenhouse gases and the climate crisis. And Sahmel describes this as “the elephant in the room” for all of retail as the industry continues to develop its greener thinking.

How can companies built on selling as many things as possible ever consider selling less as a good thing? It’s a conundrum that’s possibly on the horizon as carbon reduction targets are mapped out and legislation around this area tightens.

“How do you reconcile your growth expectations with not wishing to encourage overconsumption?” Sahmel says.

She recalls a conversation she had with a mattress retailer who fretted about what ‘eco-friendly’ filling material to use for the products. The mattresses are built to last about eight years but I said “wouldn’t it make sense making them last 12-15 years?”.

“Historically, increases in sales go hand in hand with increases in material extraction,” she explains.

“[A key question we face is] how can we influence to cut back on consumerism? But no business wants to hear that.”

The elephant in the room, indeed –  and one for debate at this year’s Retail Technology Show.

Sahmel’s session takes place in Theatre A at 09:40 on Thursday 27 April. Green Retail World is proud to be a media partner of the Retail Technology Show. Register for the event here.

At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Stefanie Sahmel, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

[Image credit: Retail Technology Show]

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